To some, he’s a lawless vigilante; to others, he’s a hero. Either way, there is something very dramatic about the way Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko has dealt with the social crises that have plagued Ukraine since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
For over a dozen years now, Mokhnenko has followed a “tough love” program of forcibly abducting homeless, drug-addicted youth and taking them back to his Pilgrim Republic rehabilitation centre, and he has gone to the pharmacies that sell opiates under the counter to these youths and threatened to deal with them even if law enforcement won’t.
Mokhnenko’s story is told in Almost Holy, a documentary by Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Steve Hoover that opens today in New York and Los Angeles. The film — which counts Terrence Malick among its executive producers — gets its title from a scene in which Mokhnenko takes a pedophile to the police, and the pedophile complains that the pastor beat him up. “I thought you were holy,” the pedophile says. “Almost,” Mokhnenko replies.
Hoover — who previously won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance for his debut feature Blood Brother, which looked at how a friend of his worked with HIV-infected youth in India — first heard about Mokhnenko when some friends came back from Ukraine with footage of the controversial pastor in 2012, and Hoover immediately agreed to direct a feature-length film about the man.
“Gennadiy’s character was the most striking thing to me,” says Hoover. “There is this immediate draw to it, a pastor kidnapping kids, you know? Just on the surface of it, he’s fascinating. I was just interested in him, in watching him, and what it is that makes him tick.”
Hoover says he was also drawn to Mokhnenko’s story because he felt a personal connection to the youth that Mokhnenko works with. “Growing up, I did a lot of drugs,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to drugs. I never did heroin, but I’ve lost a lot of friends to heroin. It was just one of those things in my adolescence.
“But in terms of the social structure that I was born into, I didn’t end up on the streets or anything. And I didn’t have a bad family, so I couldn’t totally relate to these kids, but there is something about it that I connected with. I look at myself when I was that age and I look like these kids and I’m doing everything but the needles, and so that drew me to the kids. But mostly [I was drawn to] this adult figure who came in and did something about it.”
Hoover went to Ukraine and shot his own footage in 2013 and 2014, and he also made use of footage that Mokhnenko had been keeping in his archives since the turn of the millennium. “He had somebody spend 20 days digitizing tapes for us, there was that much content,” says Hoover. “And a lot of that stuff, he hadn’t seen in years.”
Mokhnenko’s methods can be somewhat abrasive. In one scene he berates an ailing addict who was, himself, responsible for spreading drugs to many of the other kids at Pilgrim Republic. Mokhnenko asks the kids to raise their hands if this man ever injected them, and at one point he shouts, “If I was God, I wouldn’t let him live!”
When Mokhnenko finds a woman who has been kicked out of her home and left to sleep naked in the street, he offers to throw her husband out of the house. And when people point out that he has no authorization for what he’s doing, he replies, “I don’t need permission to do good deeds,” or he says he had to step in because child services wasn’t doing anything for the homeless youth he found.
There is some debate around Mokhnenko’s tactics in Ukraine, and it comes through via clips from Ukrainian talk shows. The film itself, however, doesn’t get into those debates too much; instead, it focuses primarily on following Mokhnenko as he does what he does.
“I feel like [the film] looks at what he’s doing, and allows people to process it and make their own judgments,” says Hoover. “I don’t feel comfortable making definitive judgments on his work. I don’t mean to use this as a crutch, but it’s so complicated and each case is so case-specific, that I don’t feel like there’s a blanket statement of right or wrong for what he’s doing.
“That’s why I feel like it requires looking more into his conversations with these people, and him trying to figure out what to do or how to help, and how he ultimately chooses to help them. A lot of times, it confounded me, because I expected him to do one thing and I found him doing another, and I was expecting him to do that based off of my judgment of who I thought he was, and then he would surprise me.”
Interestingly, in a region where most people identify as Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, Mokhnenko comes from the tiny percentage who identify as Protestant — though Hoover still isn’t sure exactly what subset within that subset Mokhnenko belongs to.
“From what I’ve looked into, it’s some form of Pentecostal [church],” he says. “I quickly learned that trying to understand denominations in Ukraine and comparing them to different denominations in the U.S. is not a clear picture. There’s a lot of cultural difference.”
At any rate, Mokhnenko is affiliated with some sort of church hierarchy. “He would joke and he would say, ‘Don’t show this movie to my bishop,’ if something bad happened,” says Hoover. “And this isn’t in the film, but at one point he talked about wearing his pastor’s robe or the outfit because people identify with it. It’s more a formality — well, it is for most people — but it’s to not look like such a wild card.”
There does, however, come a point in the film where Mokhnenko thinks about getting rid of his clerical collar.
Unexpectedly, while Hoover was in the country shooting his footage, a series of protests unfolded, leading to a full-scale revolution that saw the president and many other government officials flee the country in 2014. (The civil unrest — which pitted pro-European and pro-Russian forces against each other — was captured in the recent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.)
And as these events unfold in Hoover’s film, Mokhnenko floats the possibility that he might have to ask his bishop to relieve him of his pastoral duties — though so far he hasn’t.
“One of his sons did end up joining the army by his own will, and a lot of people have done that,” says Hoover. “But I think what he was saying there was what he was kind of willing to do. And I think in some ways, from what he shared, he was somewhat controversial in Ukraine as a religious leader because he was taking a non-pacifist stance on this conflict. But his position was, ‘I’m taking this stance because if people come to my house, I’m not just going to let them kill us, I’m going to do something about it.’ ”
Hoover wasn’t planning on tying Mokhnenko’s story to the wider conflict within the film at first, but eventually he realized he couldn’t avoid it.
“It made a lot of sense, of how well that actually ties into Gennadiy’s narrative,” says Hoover. “He’s somebody who has been fighting for the same changes for years, and he wants Ukraine and Mariupol to be a better place — he really loves it — and a lot of his frustrations are the same frustrations that are shared by people who ultimately fled the revolution and people that participated in that.
“The interruption of the conflict in many ways hit reset on a lot of what he was doing,” he adds, “and it’s bringing more problems to come, and there’s going to be fallout from this for years. You see Gennadiy kind of getting what he wants, which is this massive shift towards a different future for Ukraine, but it comes at such a heavy cost.”
The film was called Crocodile Gennadiy when it played the festival circuit, and it got its title from an enormously popular eastern European animated TV show that Mokhnenko identifies with, because the crocodile rescues people.
Clips from the show are a recurring motif throughout the documentary, but Hoover says the film was renamed for its theatrical release partly because the average English-speaking moviegoer wouldn’t have known what to make of the original title.
“Usually people can’t pronounce ‘Gennadiy,’ ” says Hoover. “It’s a weird spelling, and I think overall it’s just a hard title to wrap your mind around, until after you see the film and then it makes total sense.
“But here’s the thing, for Russians and Ukrainians, they get it immediately. They connect it to Gennadiy as a character, it makes absolute sense.”
Does Hoover plan to go back for a follow-up? Not at the moment, partly for safety reasons: his crew was attacked by a group of pro-Russian rebels on their last trip.
“I’ve been back to Ukraine for a film festival,” says Hoover, “but I haven’t been back to Mariupol since we were attacked. The airport that we flew into is decimated, so it’s not a safe journey for us. I think it’s something I would like to do in the future, but I don’t see being able to do that for quite a while.”